Epistemological Presuppositions of Christian Ethics

The Epistemological Presuppositions Of Christian Ethics

The following is the unedited unabridged Chapter Three from “Christian Theistic Ethics”

by Cornelius Van Til

Christian ethics does not differ from other ethics in that it seeks to answer any different questions than other ethical theories do, but it differs from other ethical theories in that it answers these questions differently. We have also found that Christian ethics does not differ from other ethical theories in that it is more limited than they. On the contrary, it is as comprehensive in its sweep as any ethical theory could be. The difference is therefore basically one of approach.

We wish therefore to consider first the presuppositions of Christian ethics. It is, in the last analysis, these basic presuppositions that make all the difference between Christian and non-Christian ethics. It was a non-Christian epistemology and metaphysics that made the men who wrote on the Ethics of Jesus give the answers that they gave to the ethical questions that they discussed. So too it is the epistemological and the metaphysical presuppositions of Christianity that make us give the answers that we give to the ethical questions that we discuss. Accordingly, we shall in the present chapter speak of the epistemological and in the following chapter of metaphysical presuppositions of Christian ethics.

Christian Consciousness

In the case of non-Christian ethics, it is in the last analysis the “moral consciousness” of man from which the information is sought in answer to the ethical questions discussed in Chapter 1. That this is so may not be immediately apparent. There are schools of ethical philosophy which maintain that the ethical good is totally independent of moral consciousness to begin with. According to them it is the business of the moral consciousness of man merely to recognize what is good and then set itself in action toward the realization of it. From Plato to Kant there have been those who have insisted on the “objectivity” of morality. They would accordingly disagree if we classified them with those who have set the moral consciousness of man as the only final source of information on things moral.

Now we fully recognize that there is a great difference between those who advocate the “subjectivity” of morality and those who maintain what they term the “objectivity” of morality. We may compare these two types of moral interpretation among non-Christian writers on ethics with the two divisions that we find in philosophy, namely, pragmatism and idealism. Though these two types of philosophy differ among themselves, that difference falls into oblivion when their common characteristics are brought to light. And it is about this common characteristic that we are now concerned. This common characteristic is that according to them all, thought, human and divine, if divine thought there be, is essentially of one type.

By that we mean that according to both the idealist and the pragmatic mind it is impossible to speak intelligently of man’s thought as being analogical of God’s thought. Human thought may be surrounded by a universe which is independent of itself, but the environment which surrounds it is still impersonal. By that we do not mean that according to idealism and pragmatism there are no other persons in the universe besides man. Some hold that there is a personal God and that there are higher intelligences that have in the past been designated as angels. But what we mean is that according to both idealism and pragmatism this God, if he exists, and these intelligences, if they exist, are themselves surrounded by an impersonal environment. The point is that if the most ultimate environment that surrounds man is impersonal it is in the last analysis the task of the consciousness of man to determine the nature of that impersonal environment. It is in this way that the “objective” morality of the idealist is at bottom as “subjective” as the “subjective” morality of the pragmatist.

When we put the matter in this way neither the idealist nor the pragmatist has reason to complain. Both of them are equally anxious to disown the opposite of the position we have outlined. If one should ask an idealist whether he would care to maintain that it is God who must speak first to the moral consciousness of man before the moral consciousness of man can say anything about moral matters, he would be quick to say no. It is a most fundamental aspect of idealist epistemology that all dualism must be avoided, dualism in epistemology as well as dualism in metaphysics. Now idealism would consider the idea that God’s “moral consciousness,” if we may speak of God in this way, should be the absolute and original standard of the moral consciousness of man as an, evidence of unpardonable dualism. And as for the pragmatist it is too obvious to need comment that he would reject the Christian view.

We are not now concerned to defend the Christian-theistic epistemology in opposition to non-Christian epistemology. We are at present concerned to set the main points of difference between the Christian and the non-Christian epistemology in clear-cut opposition against one another, in order to point out that the ethics of the nonChristian will have to be in accordance with his non-Christian epistemology, and that the ethics of the Christian will have to be in accordance with his epistemology. We are concerned, moreover, to indicate that the nature of the opposition in the ethical field will be similar to the nature of the opposition in the field of epistemology. In both cases there is a basic difference in the interpretation of the human consciousness.

The Difference Between Christian And Non-Christian Epistemology

Just what then, we ask, is the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian interpretation of the moral consciousness as far as its being a source of the answer to ethical inquiry is concerned? The most comprehensive way in which this difference can be intimated is by saying that according to non-Christian thought the moral consciousness is no more than the immediate or proximate source of information on ethical problems. For Christian ethics the revelation of the self-contained God, the ontological Trinity, as found in Scripture, is the ultimate reference point in all ethical as well as in all other questions. For non-Christian ethics the autonomous moral consciousness of man is the ultimate reference point in all ethical as well as in all other questions.

The God of Scripture is the ultimate category of interpretation for man in every aspect of his being. This God is the self-contained triune God. Every attribute of God will, in the nature of the case, be reflected primarily in every other attribute of God. There will be mutual and complete exhaustiveness in the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity. Consequently no one of the persons of the Trinity can be said to be correlative in its being to anything that exists beyond the Godhead. If then man is created, it must be that he is absolutely dependent upon his relationship to God for the meaning of his existence in its every aspect. If this is true, it means that the good is good for man because it has been set as good for man by God. This is usually expressed by saying that the good is good because God says it is good. As such it is contrasted with non-Christian thought which says that the good exists in its own right and that God strives for this good which exists in its right. We should remember, however, that when as Christian theists we say that our thought may be contrasted to non-Christian thought on the moral question by saying that we hold that the good is good because God says so, and the non-theist says that the good is good in its own right, we do not artificially separate the will of God from the nature of God. What we mean is that the will of God expresses the nature of God. It is the nature of God as the will of God that is ultimately good. Yet since this nature of God is personal there is no sense in which we can say that the good exists in its own right.

With these considerations as a background we can think of man as he first appeared upon the face of the earth. Scripture tells us that he appeared upon the earth as a perfect though finite replica of this Godhead. We do not intend to say anything in detail about this here, since what we have to say in detail about this matter comes under the head of the motive of ethics. Yet it is necessary here to point out that the original perfection of man in every respect, and in particular in the moral respect, is implied in the conception of God which lies at the foundation of the whole structure of Christian thought. Man is created in the image of God. As such man was perfect when first created.

There is not and cannot be any evil in God. This is involved in the very idea of God as an absolute person. If there were evil in his being there would be a mutual cancellation instead of a mutual complementation of the attributes of God. Absolute negation and absolute affirmation would cancel one another. Plato saw that somehow the Good had to be supreme if there was to be intelligible predication, but he could not get rid of the “mud and hair and filth” in the ideal world. Christianity has no “mud and hair and filth” in its ideal world. Satan is not as old as God, but was a creature of God and sinned as a creature of God.

Now if there is not and cannot be any evil in God it would be quite impossible to think that he should create man as evil. Again this is true not only because we abhor the idea of attributing such a deed to God, but because it would be a contradiction of his being to do so. Thus we hold that man appeared originally with a perfect moral consciousness. It is this that the Genesis narrative tells us. We take our information from Scripture and then realize that what it teaches must be true.

The difference between Christian ethics and non-Christian ethics has not been made perfectly clear at this point unless we dwell on the fact that even in its original perfect condition the moral consciousness of man was derivative and not the ultimate source of information as to what is good. Man was in the nature of the case finite. Hence his moral consciousness too was finite, and as such had to live by revelation. Man’s moral thought as well as the other aspects of his thought had to be receptively reconstructive. God therefore spoke to man in paradise, telling him what to do and what not to do with the facts of nature.

In the case of non-Christian thought, man’s moral activity is thought of as at once creatively constructive, while in Christian thought, man’s moral activity is thought of as being receptively reconstructive. According to non-Christian thought there is no absolute moral personality to whom man is responsible and from whom he has received his conception of the good, while according to Christian thought God is the infinite moral personality who reveals to man the true nature of morality.

It is necessary, however, to think of this revelation of God to man as originally internal as well as external. Man found in his own makeup, in his own moral nature, an understanding of and a love for that which is good. His own nature was revelational of the will of God. But while thus revelational of the will of God, man’s nature, even in paradise, was never meant to function by itself. It was at once supplemented by the supernatural, external and positive expression of God’s will as its correlative. Only thus can we see how basic is the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian view of the moral nature of man in relation to ethical questions.


The second point of difference that must be included in our general antithesis stated above concerns the question of the influence of sin on the moral consciousness of man. We cannot begin to give a survey here of all the biblical material that bears on this question. Nor is this necessary. The main point is clear enough. Just as sin has blinded the intellect of man, so it has corrupted the will of man. This is often spoken of as the hardening of man’s heart. Paul says that the natural man is at enmity against God. The natural man cannot will to do God’s will. He cannot even know what the good is. The sinner worships the creature rather than the Creator. He has set all the moral standards topsy-turvy.

This doctrine of the total depravity of man makes it perfectly plain that the moral consciousness of man as he is today cannot be the source of information about what is good or about what is the standard of the good or about what is the true nature of the will which is to strive for the good. It would seem plain enough that men have to choose on this point between the Christian and the non-Christian position.

It is this point particularly that makes it necessary for the Christian to maintain without any apology and without any concession that it is Scripture, and Scripture only, in the light of which all moral questions must be answered. Scripture as an external revelation became necessary because of the sin of man. No man living can even put the moral problem as he ought to put it, or ask the moral questions as he ought to ask them unless he does so in the light of Scripture. Man cannot of himself truly face the moral question, let alone answer it.

Man’s moral consciousness then as it is today is (a) finite, and (b) sinful. If it were only finite and not sinful we could go to the moral consciousness of man for our information. Even then, however, we should have to remember that we could go there not because the moral consciousness would be able either to ask or to answer the moral question correctly in its own power, but because its own activity would be in fruitful contact with God from whom the questions and the answers would ultimately come. But now that man is sinful as well as finite we cannot go to that moral consciousness at all unless that moral consciousness be regenerated.

It is true that the non-regenerate consciousness of man cannot entirely keep under the requirements of God that speak to it through its own constitution. Thus God’s will is heard through it in spite of it. Hence the natural man excuses or accuses himself for his ethical action. But for the main point now under consideration, this point may be ignored. For to the extent that man is not restrained by God’s common grace from living out his sinful principle, the natural man makes his own moral consciousness the ultimate and normal standard of moral action.

The Regenerated Consciousness

What then of the regenerated moral consciousness? In the first place the regenerated consciousness is in principle reinstated to its former place. This implies that we can go to it because we could originally go to it for our answers. This is of basic importance, for it furnishes the point of contact between Christian and non-Christian ethics. As Christians we do not maintain that man’s moral consciousness cannot under any circumstances and in any sense serve as a point of reference. But man’s moral consciousness must be regenerated in order to serve as a reference point. Moreover, the regenerated consciousness is still finite. It must still live by revelation as it originally lived by revelation. It can never become an ultimate information bureau. Finally, the regenerated moral consciousness is changed in principle only, and therefore often errs. Consequently it must constantly seek to test itself by Scripture. More than that, the regenerated consciousness does not in itself fabricate any answers to the moral questions. It receives them and reworks them. Now if this receiving, insofar as it implies an activity of the mind, be called the function of the moral consciousness, we may speak of it as a source of information. The regenerated moral consciousness which constantly nourishes itself upon the Scripture is as the plenipotentiary who knows fairly well what his authority desires.

So then we have before us the Christian and the non-Christian conception of the moral consciousness of man. Summing up the matter we may say (a) that there once was a moral consciousness that was perfect and could act as a source, but only as a proximate source, of information on moral questions; (b) that there are now two types of moral consciousness which ultimately agree on no ethical answer and on no ethical question, namely, the non-regenerate and the regenerate consciousness; (c) that the non-regenerate consciousness denies while the regenerate consciousness affirms that the moral verdict of any man must be tested by Scripture because of the sin of man.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s